The Significance of Rituals in Traditional Architecture (part two)

Following the theory of Nold Egenter, an architectural anthropologist, suggesting the restudy of past with the macro-micro concept to rediscover the meanings of “potent dimensions” that have been established in architecture from pre-human era, one must shift the idea of architecture as being merely a shelter to more profound concepts. In his theory, four distinctive phases of architecture are perceived as an evolutionary process.

– Subhuman architecture that is referred to the nests being built by three higher species of apes.

– Semantic architecture or non-domestic built elements used for ritual ceremonies, which has a symbolic meaning and has helped in the establishment of architectural form.

– Domestic architecture as a result of two previous phases of constructive behavior that has led to the rise of an internal space.

– Settlement architecture, deriving from semantic architecture and the rituals of cyclical renewal, which were crucial in preserving the narrative origins and social hierarchy.

If this theory is accepted, the crucial role of rituals and the belief in sacred reality as the prior phases of domestic architecture will be undeniable.

“Buildings essentially structure human environmental space. This would mean that man –as always- not only perceives, but integrates the spatial structure defined by buildings and reproduces this structure in other contexts, thinks with it, works with it … This type of spatial structure generated by buildings, influences man along an anthropological continuum and lives in our language, in our thoughts, keeps the arts living and even supports originally metaphysical ideas.”


Ritual behavior basically deals with three concepts of place, time and acts that are totally mixed with the idea of soul existence or immortality.

In fact, traditional domestic architecture consists of three phases. First deals with material construction of the house that includes selecting the proper site, laying the foundation and building the structure, while the next phase links the construction processes to the flow of cosmic time so that they could occur at auspicious times calculated by a priest compatible with the horoscope of the owner. Thus each stage of material construction begins when there is a harmonious temporal conjunction of the building process and the life-chart of the owner. The third is connected to ritual activities used to make the construction an auspicious place for domestic activities in order to bring luck and prosperity for the inhabitants.


Place as the first perceived element in the domestic architecture, creates boundaries out of the unbounded space while its type and shape is dependent upon the culture and time period in which it is defined. Although architectural boundary can range from inner-outer and public-private spaces, for primitive man space is not homogeneous. It means that some parts of space are qualitatively different from others. This idea classifies some places as sacred and others as profane; for example in Torah God orders Moses to take off his shoes while standing on the holy ground. In this case, the threshold as a distinction between these two realms becomes substantial.

The Boundary; between Sacred and Profane

Basically the idea of sacred place persuaded the ancient cultures to find ways of making their dwelling places sacred. The role of this threshold or the entrance gate was to prevent the evil spirits or profane realities to enter the sacred place of the house. Thus in many traditional houses the entrance gate as a passage, used to be designed in such a way that it shifts the people who enter the house from the profane realm into the sacred. For example in traditional Persian houses they used to create a “hashti,” which is a space located after the entrance gate to serve this function; the leaves that Indians hang over their entrance door serves the same function.

The origins of building dwelling places by primitive man have been described by Vitruvius as an evolutionary stage in human history, which started by the discovery of fire. According to him ancient people used to live like wild beasts individually and on a savage fare, that the fire made by the strike of the thunderbolt in forests gathered them around this strange and beneficial power where they could perceive others and create societies. They started to talk and thus established conversation with each other. Expressing themselves as individuals, who build the society, they started to form their dwelling spaces and the faith in a supernatural power led them to make these places sacred to live in. However manifesting the idea needed some rational models and diagrams to pursue, which later gave rise to symbolic figures accompanied by ritual acts. Thus by observing the shelters of other members and adding new details to their dwelling places, they made the construction of houses better and better through time. Later, and by gaining courage in applying works of arts, huts transformed into houses with foundations and brick or stone walls; this formed well-established rules and standards of construction. Since the first huts were an imitation of natural shelters like caves, trees and nests, the concept of respecting nature remained vital in performing the rituals and construction stages.

The Center

According to Geert Bekaert, among all the logical interpretations of the world’s realities, the awareness of a center achieved by an open space, was an essential factor in dwellings of ancient times, expressing the communal center or the center of the universe. Since in the infinite expanse, no point of reference is possible and thus no orientation can be established, there is an absolute fixed point to abode to the universe; a center. This central axis, or the line that the world rotates around it, determines the place of the dwelling and is often represented by a pillar. Without the determination of this center, the existence of physical dwelling cannot be accomplished and the process of living cannot take place; because being as a microcosm, the house should represent the macrocosm or the “system of the world” as an archetypal model in a symbolic manner. Traditionally system of the world was introduced by four concepts:

“-A sacred place forms a break in the homogeneity of space

– This break is symbolized by a pathway from which passage from one cosmic region like earth to another, like heaven is made possible

– This communication with heaven is indicated by the use of symbolic elements to refer to this sacred axis such as pillar, ladder, tree, vine, etc.

– Around this cosmic axis lies the world or “our world.” Thus the axis is located “in the middle,” at the “navel of the earth” which is the center of the world.” Eliade & Trask

…the awareness of a center achieved by an open space, was an essential factor in dwellings of ancient times, expressing the communal center or the center of the universe

This center is often shown by a central pillar, known as the pillar of the universe in different cultures such as India, Indonesia, the Romans and the Greek who consider it as “the door to the world above.” This pillar, which connects the three cosmic levels of heaven, earth and underworld, plays a primary role in the ritual behavior while suggesting a cosmic structure for the house. In the songs recited during rituals normally the house is considered as “our world:” ‘I am at the center of the world … I am at the post of the world.’ Eliade & Trask

This shows the importance of the sacred place and the sacred orientation, for which the determination of a fix point is required; thus locating the center was important to the primitive man without which no construction could begin. The discovery or projection of a fixed point or center was equivalent to the creation of a new world in microcosmic scale that used to have a cosmological value and was done by the application of rituals of orientation and construction of the sacred space. This ritual was followed even when primitive man wanted to occupy a territory already inhabited by other people, because it was not yet considered as “our world” by the new owners. The concept of creating a new world from the unbounded space was basically the reason why people in ancient times used to perform an “imitative ritual” in the process of house construction. The concept of Vastu Purusha mandala in Vastu Shastra science can be considered as an example of such acts.

The mythical symbolism of the center represents man’s desire to have a space opening upward in order to communicate with the divine world. Thus to live near to the “center of the world’” is equivalent to living as close as possible to the gods. This fundamental concept of center and location later gave birth to the terms like space and distance, center and periphery, etc. Hence determination of this place or location point was a crucial stage in dwelling architecture; and the elements considered necessary for living by individuals and community were collected in and around the house, as a representation of the center. The association of center to dwelling place gradually made the house an important element in man’s life.

As discussed earlier, for individual’s to be part of the group, they started to find a spot of their own in societies. Thus, being known in community was expressed by the search for one’s own spot in relation to the center. If the group accepted one, he then would go on to build his own house. In this way “place” basically become protector of the individual’s essence, and both community and individuals started to express their essence by the use of the “place.” As we see the various forms for religious acts have sought expression in pyramids, temples and mosques and mostly being built on sacred sites.

As a consequence, the place, especially the house became an important concept in human culture and the center, as the basic idea for building remained important.

The Point of Direction

The concept of “place” is in fact highly fundamental that we cannot think of anything without having a boundary or a place and consequently the place acquires a character to be stored in the memory. This makes the place a point of reference.

The awareness of different places defined by boundaries, also leads to the idea of direction. The concept of direction helps to form a picture of surroundings to be able to recollect them. For example, “in front” indicates direction and destination while “behind” shows the distant covered from the home as a starting point. Considering both will define a path, which is a symbolic representation of life, as human always go forward from the birth time as a starting point. House in this concept symbolizes the central place of human existence, which is perceivable in the poem written by Herman Broch about his childhood home.

‘In the middle of all the distance stands this house, therefore be fond of it.’ Broch

The Analogy to Human Body

In all human attempts to find the logic behind life and reality, the concept of macro-micro is evident. For example, houses of ancient times were considered as bodies in analogy with human body, with which people used to share a common anatomy and a common life history. Thus people used to build their own image as individuals and groups in a mathematical order or mandala form, while constructing a dwelling place. Dwelling in a domestic mandala, consists of two modes of space: an auspicious four-sided polygon oriented to the cardinal directions, and a series of concentric zones shaped around the center, which indicate the proper areas for living. In this way, considering these two modes of space in building the house and its surroundings, becomes an embodiment of revelation of the cosmos and its enigmatic consequences of attachment and detachment in the lives of their householders. This concept that “houses are people” is one of the universal patterns of architecture, which denotes house as an extension of the self. Hence, as Bachelard and Jung have suggested, the space of the house is inhabited not just physically but also in the imagination or psychologically. ‘For our house is our corner of the world … it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word.’ Bachelard

This theory is evident by looking at the children’s drawings. They often draw their house in their image with two windows and a door, similar to their two eyes and a mouth.

‘The child is pleased with the house he draws, if it resembles his inner model, and he is completely indifferent to whether or not it looks like the houses we build. His house may look like ours, but only to the extent that our dwellings reflect the profound and universal language of the house.’ Marc

The child often draws his house by the use of spirals, wavy lines and dots, which are like the traditional housing symbols, resembling his mother’s womb. The womb thus becomes the symbol of his interior peace. In fact, the child draws the container to express the contents that resembles human as the soul. For this, he uses the language of symbols, whose meanings we have lost but serve the means of communication of the child, the primitive man and the sage.

In this way, “place” as a concept of the self, which mirrors the world of its inhabitants and stands in the center of the universe, used to be considered as sacred element which should be first made sacred from the profound surrounding, in order to be livable.


As discussed by Nold Egenter, building houses were always a consequence of ritual behavior. Thus in building a new house the stages of construction had to be auspiciously timed and accompanied by the performance of certain rituals. The purpose of all these practices was to create an auspicious dwelling space in the form of a mandala or a significant diagram whose orientation to the cardinal directions was designed to benefit the owner.

Ritual activities underlying the house construction are rich and complex ideas about the cosmos and basically symbolic acts of re-creating the universe and understanding its fundamental principles.

Time as Sacred or Profane

For primitive man, time is also like space, neither homogeneous nor continues. On one hand there is the sacred time, which is used for ritual activities, and on the other hand there is the profane time that is composed of ordinary temporal durations when the unimportant activities are ought to be done.

One essential difference between these two qualities of time is that the nature of sacred time is reversible and repeatable in the sense of mythical conception. Thus in this point of view, the sacred events that have occurred in a mythical past, “in the beginning,” can be recovered from the ordinary temporal durations. In this way any ritual act should be performed in a proper sacred time. For example, the time of birthday celebration, as a ritual act is considered sacred and repeatable.

In traditional geomancy, time does not pass straight on and it is not perceived as linear but in a cyclic way. Hence as discussed, it appears not as a metronomic delineated event but as a discontinuity of auspicious and unfavorable moments, which have to be either seized or avoided. Time has never been an abstract concept for the primitive man but part of his life, mostly experienced in phonological festivals, seasonal works and ritual acts.

..the nature of sacred time is reversible and repeatable in the sense of mythical conception. Thus in this point of view, the sacred events that have occurred in a mythical past, “in the beginning,” can be recovered from the ordinary temporal durations…

Time as a means of measuring the influence of heavenly bodies or planets in the life of living beings, is the subject of many ancient architectural theories in almost every culture. Thus as place is classified into two realms of sacred and profane, time is also subject to this categorization which can be calculated using the knowledge of astrology. It means that every house, in order to be served as sacred to live, had to be built in a sacred place, in a sacred time and in a sacred way, unless, it would bring misfortune and misery to the inhabitants. The importance of planets’ effects on the lives of people in traditional era is noticeable from the names of the deities associated with them.

Therefore there would be an intimate connection between the cosmos and time, the same as cosmos and space, while they are both considered as sacred realities and divine creations. Among traditional cultures, this cosmic temporal connection is evident even in the structure of the houses as well as the sacred buildings. Since house is a representation of the center of the world, it can also represent a temporal symbolism. The example can be found among the Algonquin and the Sioux. While their lodge represents the universe, at the same time it symbolizes the year. For, the year is perceived as a journey through the four cardinal directions signified by the four doors and four windows of the lodge. The year is symbolically drawn in a circular form around the lodge symbolizing the world.

Time and the Science of Astrology

The planets and their movements in fact, indicate the temporal dimension of the cosmos, as the cardinal directions represent its spatial dimension. Thus in order to build an auspicious house, auspicious timing of events should be accompanied with the auspicious spatial considerations. This act often used to perform by a moral man or a priest in ancient societies using the knowledge of astrology. The basic principle of astrology is that everything in the universe influences others and according to the law of “cause and effect,” in return is influenced by others. Thus whatever is born or done at any moment has the qualities of that particular moment. It means that, heavenly bodies or planets can be mapped in the form of horoscope at the time of creation of any event using the knowledge of astronomy and mathematics, which can be interpreted by the defined principles of astrology. The formation of these planets and their mathematical interpretations indicate the sacredness or profaneness of any specific time.

Practically, the auspicious time is determined according to the position of planets or astral bodies at the time of the owner’s birth as his “birth-chart” and the time of the material construction process in each phase. Apart from the positive effects of correct time calculations in bringing good luck and prosperity for the owner and his family, another result of this temporal auspiciousness of each stage of construction would be to associate the house’s owner with the house’s building, so that their qualities and fates become in harmony and intervention with one another. The last target was to psychologically attach the owner to his house as a reflection of his self, so that he will feel comfortable and peaceful inside.

..the auspicious time is determined according to the position of planets or astral bodies at the time of the owner’s birth as his “birth-chart” and the time of the material construction process in each phase…

This cosmic life was imagined in the form of a circular course to identify the year with a beginning and an end. This year has the ability to die and rebirth by the start of the next year. Thus according to astrology, if the time of the owner’s birth is aligned by the time of the construction’s starting point, their fate will be in harmony with each other every year. This cosmogony is the archetype of all creation since for the primitive man every creation begins in time. Before a something exists, its particular time could not exist, since before the cosmos came to existence, there was no cosmic time. This is why every creation is imagined as happening at the beginning of time considered as its birth.

The same module is also applied in building a new house. Thus rituals of world creation in Indian geomancy showing Brahma fighting with the formless monster, Purusha, which is the core concept of Vastu Purusha mandala, is performed every time a house is being built; this is similar to the concept of New Year in which Marduk, God of Babylonians, creates the cosmos from Tiamat, marine monster symbolizing the chaos of the universe before creation, after performing a battle.

As sacred space and the idea of center is an indication of the man’s desire to be near to the gods, the desire for finding the sacred time also shows the desire to become contemporary with the gods and living in their presence as if the gods and mythical ancestors were present in creating the world and laying the foundations of the civilizations of man.

As a conclusion the patterns and principles of house construction together with their associated rituals were followed carefully by the primitive man, since he used to account himself responsible to collaborate in the creation of the cosmos by creating his own world or his own house and stand as a co-creator to God.


Ritual acts in traditional dwelling architecture consists of two distinctive phases; one focuses on the activities associated with physical construction of the dwelling including rituals of finding a proper site, proper materials combined with the technical structural methods in building a durable shelter while the other phase involves the metaphysical beliefs connected with creating a new shelter in which the selected site becomes sacred by the application of rituals. These rituals, specially the rituals of the latter phase, should be performed in an auspicious time usually calculated by the priest or a religious man.

In fact due to the lack of technical knowledge and industry, some specific rituals were conducted as a means to examine the stamina and durability of the building. For example certain rituals were followed in order to examine the quality of the soil on which the building would be erected. On the other hand, the traditional house used to gain its spiritual essence by the use of symbolic features, ritualistic ceremonies and the application of mythical rules and regulations.

In ancient teachings, time and space were considered two major elements, which have great influence on man’s life, distinguished from his own actions. Time element, which signifies the fate or destiny, is formed based on the position of planets in the moment of birth which in spite of technological advances, man still finds himself helpless in dealing with. According to ancient philosophy, fate is the sum total of good and bad deeds of man in his previous lifetimes and controls his life. Although fate or destiny stands beyond man’s control, it can be discovered, measured, studied and to some extent be neutralized. This idea towards time is very similar to the Hegel’s philosophy of the universal spirit. Accordingly, time has a cyclic quality not a linear form, which is repeated through history, making it a divine reality. Thus everything in history has happened because they had to happen in that way since the universal spirit had willed them to happen.

In ancient teachings, time and space were considered two major elements, which have great influence on man’s life, distinguished from his own actions…

Now, whether we make use of time and space in a positive and beneficial way or not is dependent on our actions. Action is the sum total of conscious and sub-conscious deeds which determines our character. Primitive man used to consider humanity as a concept that has a tendency to become a trans-human or a transcendent model. It means that unless he imitates the gods, mythical ancestors or cultural heroes, he does not consider himself as a truly human. Thus he accounted himself responsible for preserving the nature as a manifestation of the gods. Ritual acts in this case were the acts of remembering this responsibility as a divine being and to make the houses consecrated by this divine presence; since all things are co-related, and in this inter-related world, everything is subject to the same law. Hence everything in heaven, nature and within human beings is analogous in order.

“It is quite logical that alteration on a certain spot only can be made good with a chain of alterations within the micro-cosmos concerned.”


To primitive man, the world was an existence with a complex structure; it was not a chaos that had to be restrained but a cosmos full of order and proportion with which man should be remained in harmony. While sky revealed the infinite distance, earth was considered as a universal mother. Human’s role in this sacred reality was to stay in harmony with nature and imitate the gods’ creation by his actions. This module is a chief idea in ancient philosophy of different cultures. For example the analogy between man and gods is denoted in a traditional African song as followed:

“God (Nzame) is above, man below
God is God, man is man
Each at home, each at his house”

Eliade & Trask

From all of these concepts, it is evident that traditional dwelling architecture is more than an assemblage of building materials in construction upon a specific site while house is considered as a physical as well as a spiritual body, not a mere thing or object. Thus ancient house is a manifestation of ritual, cultural and social aspects and beliefs bound with the physical techniques, crafts and economy.

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